China Blocks Tibet Lawyers

Authorities deny a Tibetan filmmaker and two monks the right to legal representation in what some are calling a wider crackdown on independent lawyers.
2009-07-20
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Dhondup-305.jpg
Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen.
Photo: Dechen Pemba

DHARAMSALA—Chinese authorities have blocked two lawyers from representing a Tibetan filmmaker and two Tibetan monks as part of a wider move to shut down the work of "rights lawyers" in China, according to the lawyers and other sources.

In China's northwestern province of Qinghai, court officials told Beijing lawyer Li Dunyong that he would not be allowed to defend Tibetan documentary producer Dhondup Wangchen.

Wangchen, who had interviewed Tibetans on their political views for the film "Leaving Fear Behind," was arrested in March 2008 and is currently awaiting trial in Xining, in Qinghai.

"Without the representation of the family-appointed lawyer, it is very unlikely that Dhondup Wangchen will receive any kind of fair trial or adequate defense, said Dechen Pemba, a London-based spokesperson for Filming for Tibet, the group that produced Wangchen's documentary.

Wangchen's family had sought Li's help when they learned Wangchen's whereabouts after not hearing from him for a year while he was in custody.

Pressure from authorities

Li, one of a group of lawyers who signed a statement last year saying they were willing to offer legal help to Tibetans, met briefly with Wang in Xining. But he returned to Beijing under pressure from authorities in Qinghai and Beijing.

Sources quote Li as saying that Chinese authorities likely hope to appoint their own lawyers in order to guarantee harsh punishment for Wangchen.

Dechen Pemba, in an e-mail sent from London, said, "Our main concern at this moment is that Dhondup Wangchen's trial will take place behind closed doors and a very heavy sentence [will be] handed down to him."

International rights groups Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and Amnesty International have called for Wangchen's release. Wangchen's film—in which Tibetans express their views on the Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama, and Chinese policies in Tibet—has been translated into seven languages and shown in over 30 countries.

Wangchen's wife Lhamo Tso said that Wangchen suffers from Hepatitis B and is not receiving medical treatment in detention.

"Before my husband was arrested, he didn't have any major health problems. It was all because of maltreatment in the Chinese prison," she said.

Monks' lawyer barred

In another case, Beijing lawyer Li Fangping was blocked from representing two Tibetan monks from Labrang monastery in Gansu province who were arrested after taking part in a political protest.

The monks, Tsultrim Gyatso and Thabkey Gyatso, were recently sentenced to prison terms of life and 15 years respectively for "splitting the country."

Li, a member of the Beijing Ruifeng Law Firm, had traveled to Gansu after the defendants' families hired him, but was not allowed to meet with the men.

"The authorities not only refused my request to meet those two men, they also refused my involvement in the case by saying they already had lawyers," Li said.

"They effectively denied the families' rights to independently hire attorneys," he said.

Tsultrim Gyatso and Thabkey Gyatso are currently serving their sentences at the Gansu Provincial State Security Center. Their families, who were prevented from visiting them during their detention and from attending their trial, have submitted separate petitions to the Gansu Higher People's Court to be allowed to hire independent attorneys.

Part of a trend

News of the lawyers being barred comes at the same time as a recent crackdown on human rights lawyers in Beijing. On June 17, officials from Beijing's Civil Affairs Bureau closed down a legal research center of the rights-oriented Open Constitution Initiative.

The week before, the Beijing Justice Bureau had posted on its Web site a notice revoking the licenses of 53 lawyers associated with the group.

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York, called the crackdown "part of a whole range of defensive moves by the establishment to prevent independent lawyers from being able to operate."

He added that the blocking of lawyers attempting to defend Tibetans "seems to be one more stage in the process."

"This is a great disappointment, because the best news in China in legal terms over the last few years has been the development of this whole phenomenon of these remarkable independent lawyers."

Original reporting by Dolkar, Takla Gyal, and Lubey for RFA's Tibetan service. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written in English by R. Vandenbrink. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.


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